THEY STOOD SWAYING IN A CIRCLE, SHIFTING THEIR WEIGHT from one foot to the other; something between cautious dancing and marching in place. The little group of veterans at the Maison des Anciens Combattants in Kinshasa were clearly enjoying themselves. Their brand-new uniforms were a gift from the Belgian army to Congo’s present-day armed forces. The veterans wore them with pride, clapped their hands and sang in deep voices: “Saluti, saluti, pesa saluti, tokopesa saluti na bakonzi nyonso.” A marching song. “Salute, salute, atten-shun, we salute all our leaders.” Those leaders, as they explained to me afterward, had been Belgians. All their officers were Belgians back then. “Biso baCongolais, biso baCongolais,” was how it went after that, “We Congolese, we Congolese, we have shown our strength. Today we have conquered Saio.” A simple but catchy soldiers’ song. Once you’d heard the melody, it stuck with you. A Congolese soldier had come up with the tune in 1941, shortly after the taking of the fortified garrison town of Saio in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). It was sung in the backs of the trucks in which the Congolese soldiers drove back to Kisangani through the arid, open landscape of Sudan. Almost seventy years later the veterans still knew it by heart. It breathed a new sort of brotherhood. That’s right, in those days the whites were still their superiors, but during the war something had changed. The Congolese soldier was extremely proud to present his white officers with the conquest of Saio.
That sense of pride, however, would not last for long. Much more even than World War I, World War II brought about rapprochement, followed by disillusionment. I talked about this to eighty-seven-year-old André Kitadi, one of the men who had sung along that day. He was deputy chairman of the veterans’ association of 1940–45, a remarkable, quiet-voiced man of keen judgment. His office was empty, save for a metal desk, a Congolese flag, and a huge puddle of water. The previous night’s rain had collected on the concrete floor. “We fought for Belgium, that much was clear. The Belgians used us to defend their interests. We took part because we had discipline. We had la conscience de la guerre [a sense of duty about the war].”1
After the German army rolled over Belgium during those eighteen days in the spring of 1940, the legal status of the Belgian Congo remained unclear for a few months. That was due to the general collapse in the fatherland itself. While the Belgian government fled first to France and later to England, where it aligned itself with the Allies, King Leopold III, great-nephew of Leopold II, bowed to the German victory. He was taken prisoner and remained in Nazi Germany until the end of the war. Which raised the question: who was the colonial administration to heed now? The king of a country that no longer existed as a sovereign state but still had a colony, or his minister of colonies in exile, who was effectively the administrator general of the Belgian Congo? In the colony itself, opinions differed. Conservative elements like Félix de Hemptinne, the influential bishop of Katanga, were royalists and resigned themselves to the German victory and a new fascist world order. Many industrialists also harbored ultra-right-wing sympathies. They hoped to continue supplying Germany with raw materials, which in fact they did during the war, by way of Portugal. Anti-Semitism reared its head here and there. In the El Dorado of Elisabethville, a small Jewish community had formed. The local rabbi, the only one in Congo, saw to his horror how the shop windows of Jewish merchants were daubed with swastikas and slogans like sale juif (dirty Jew).2 But in the end, Governor General Pierre Ryckmans put his foot down: the Belgian Congo would unanimously take the side of the Allies and continue to fight against fascism. Officially his administration was answerable to the exiled minister of colonies, but in actual practice he enjoyed great autonomy. His personal courage was of more overriding importance than any directive from London.
The French colonies, too, hesitated about which side to take: most of them decided to support Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime, while a few opted for Charles de Gaulle’s Free France. In this way, the conflict between the Allies and the Axis powers was transferred to the African continent. Although Germany had lost its final overseas territory in 1918, large parts of Africa still moved within the National Socialist sphere of influence. What’s more, Germany’s new ally, Italy, still possessed African colonies. It had ruled ever since the late nineteenth century over Eritrea and Italian Somaliland in the Horn of Africa, areas along the Red Sea coast whose strategic important had grown with the opening of the Suez Canal. In 1911 Italy had succeeded in taking Libya and in 1935 Mussolini invaded Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, the only state of any size in Africa that had never been colonized. Thanks in part to soldiers from the Belgian Congo, that instance of foreign rule would this time be short-lived as well.
When the Belgian government-in-exile sided with the Allies, Winston Churchill called for material and military support from the Belgian Congo. In Northern Africa, after all, Libya posed a threat to Egypt (which had gained independence in 1922, but was in many ways still dependent on England), while the Horn of Africa was a menace to British-held Kenya and Sudan. From those British colonies Churchill first sent his own troops to Abyssinia, but starting in February 1941 their ranks were reinforced by the eleventh battalion of the Force Publique. Some three thousand Congolese soldiers and two thousand bearers took part. There was one Belgian officer to every fifty Africans. By truck and boat they moved across the Sudan, where daytime temperatures often reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. From there they invaded the mountainous western portion of Abyssinia. The trucks received a new coat of paint; in order to better camouflage them, brown sand was mixed with the army green. But it was largely on foot that the soldiers traveled through the desolate region. During the day the troops almost collapsed in the heat; at night, at higher elevations, their teeth chattered from the cold. When the rainy season began a few weeks later, some of them had to bivouac in the mud. Towns such as Asosa and Gambela did not pose much of a problem. After brief but intense fighting, the Italian troops fled. Their officers did not even bother to take their sabers or tennis rackets with them. A much greater challenge was Saio, a major Italian garrison city close to the Sudanese border. After heavy shelling on June 8, 1941, the demoralized Italians demanded a truce, despite their clear superiority in numbers and arms.
The Belgian commanders agreed, on terms of a total surrender. No fewer than nine Italian generals were taken prisoner, including Pietro Gazzera, commander of the Italian troops in East Africa, and Count Arnocovaldo Bonaccorsi, inspector general of the Fascist militias that had terrorized Mallorca during the Spanish Civil War. In addition, 370 Italian officers (45 of them high-ranking) were taken prisoner, along with 2,574 noncoms, and 1,533 native soldiers. Another 2,000 native irregulars were sent home.
MAP 6: BELGIAN CONGO DURING WORLD WAR II
The taking of Saio, however, was primarily of material and strategic importance. The Force Publique captured eighteen cannons with five thousand rounds, four mortars, two hundred machine guns, 330 pistols, 7,600 rifles, fifteen thousand grenades, and two million rounds of small-arms ammunition. In addition, Belgians and Congolese confiscated twenty metric tons (twenty-two U.S. tons) of radio equipment, including three complete transmitter stations, twenty motorcycles, twenty automobiles, two armored vehicles, 250 trucks, and—hardly unimportant in the highlands—five hundred mules. An army had gone out of business here, that much was clear. It was the most significant Belgian victory over Fascism and in fact the greatest Belgian military triumph ever, but the heaviest toll was paid by the Congolese. The Belgian casualties were 4 killed and 6 badly wounded, while 42 Africans were killed, 5 went missing, and 193 succumbed to illnesses or injuries. Among the bearers there were 274 fatalities; most of those died of exhaustion or dysentery.
The Force Publique’s Abyssinian campaign was instrumental in Haile Selassie’s return to the throne. Ethiopia had been a colony for only five years, from 1936 to 1941; now the centuries-old empire had been restored. The restoration gave new inspiration to the Jamaican Rastafarians, who had begun to venerate Emperor Haile Selassie as a deity in the 1930s. His divine status, however, was one that had been affirmed in ways more military than metaphysical. Congolese soldiers had freed Ethiopian towns like Asosa, Gambela, and above all Saio. Indirectly, therefore, Belgian colonialism contributed to the spiritual dimension of reggae. What Tabora had been to World War I, Saio was to World War II: a resounding victory that bolstered the troops’ morale. It was no mean feat; here, for the first time in history, an African country had been decolonized by African soldiers. “The only people we saw were white,” Louis Ngumbi, a veteran from eastern Congo told me, “we shot only at white people.”3 That was a bit of an exaggeration, but that the Force Publique took several thousand white soldiers as prisoners of war, including nine generals, made a huge impression. Saio was etched in the memory of an entire generation of military men. André Kitadi, deputy chairman of the veterans’ association, knew the numbers by heart: “In Abyssinia we captured nine Italian generals, plus 370 Italian officers, twenty-five hundred Italian soldiers, and fifteen thousand natives.”4
Kitadi volunteered in 1940. The war had already started, but that didn’t bother him. In the army you could get a good education: he became a telegraph operator. During the Abyssinian campaign he remained on stand-by in Orientale province, along the border with Sudan, ready to be deployed. But that never proved necessary. When the troops returned, singing, and were welcomed by cheering crowds, he was transferred to Boma. But not for long. Now that the Horn of Africa had fallen, the Allies shifted their focus to Western and, above all, Northern Africa. In fall 1942, after the Vichy French were rousted from Morocco and Algeria, Kitadi boarded a carrier that brought him and his comrades to Lagos in Nigeria. It was from that British colony that the battle for Dahomey (present-day Benin), a French colony still aligned with the Vichy regime, was to begin. “It took us four days to get to Nigeria. We arrived in Lagos and were taken to barracks three hundred kilometers (185 miles) away. We were trained there. For six whole months.” The men of the Force Publique came in contact there with the British colonial troops. Although still under Belgian command, Kitadi was fitted out with a British uniform. In early March 1943 he received new marching orders. Following the Allied successes in Northern Africa, Dahomey had sided with De Gaulle. The last German-Italian stronghold in Africa was now Libya. From there General Erwin Rommel had struck at Egypt, to force a passage to the Suez Canal. The Allies wanted to stop him at all costs and began a troop build-up in Egypt. Kitadi now had to get from Nigeria to Egypt. That was, to say the least, no easy task as long as the Mediterranean was still controlled by Italy. Overland, then? Straight across Africa? In those days neighboring Chad, a French colony, was run by a black governor general, Félix Eboué. He supported De Gaulle and opened his territory for a crossing by Allied troops. The only problem was that this entailed a long journey through the desert . . . .
We left with ten, maybe fifteen columns. Each column consisted of a hundred and fifty trucks, with one Belgian officer and a Marconi operator. I was one of them. As opérateur, I was responsible for the wireless communication with the other columns. We went from Nigeria to Sudan, across the Nubian Desert. We could only navigate by compass. I’ll never forget that crossing. We ran into sandstorms that blinded you sometimes for an hour or more. When the sand heated up, you saw things that weren’t there. It took us more than a month. Sometimes we covered only twenty kilometers [about 12.5 miles] a day. There were ravines. Accidents happened there . . . . We lived on biscuits and cans of corned beef, and were given only half a liter of water a day. A lot of us fell ill . . . . Two hundred of the two thousand soldiers died along the way . . . . We lived like animals, we couldn’t wash ourselves . . . . The whole journey from Lagos to Cairo cost us three months. We drove thousands and thousands of kilometers.5
His voice faltered. He stopped. Never before had I heard about this heroic crossing of the Sahara. I asked whether he had ever had his story written down. “No,” he said, “this is the first time a white person has ever asked about it.”
There was, of course, another way to get to Egypt. Martin Kabuya, a ninety-two-year-old whose grandfather had been in Tabora when it was taken in 1916, took that other route. He too was garrisoned in Nigeria, where he too was a wireless operator. His appearance was still imposing, but his voice had grown brittle as an eggshell. He whispered his story to me. “I was very, very good in Morse code. Ti-ti-tiii-ti. I never made a mistake, even when I worked by ear. If you’re able to do that, the rest is easy. On March 24, 1943, I received orders to board a Dutch merchant ship, theDuchesse de Ritmond. We sailed south on the Atlantic to South Africa. There we had to round the Cape of Good Hope, and then on to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to close to the Suez Canal. There were at least a hundred ships. Around South Africa, a few of them were attacked by Japanese planes. Twenty-seven men were killed on one of those ships. The soldiers slept all bunched together in the hold. Conditions were bad.”6
Both Kitadi and Kabuya took part in the fighting in Egypt. Kitadi spent, by his own account, “a whole year” in the desert outside Alexandria, where enemy positions and planes were fired on. The threat came from Libya and Sicily. “During the day it was scorching hot, at night we had to wear gloves to keep our hands warm. On Sundays we were allowed to go into town, to Alexandria, but that had been bombed by the Germans. It was full of flies.” Kabuya was stationed at Camp Geneva, a huge depot close to the Suez Canal; his job was to intercept and decode Morse messages from the enemy. “I was in the Section d’écoute, the monitoring section; we eavesdropped on messages about their troop movements.”
The war brought them in contact with other peoples: British officers, Nigerian soldiers, Arabs, and German and Italian prisoners of war. The hermetic world of the barracks in the Belgian Congo lay far behind them. “There were a lot of Italian prisoners of war in Alexandria,” Kitadi said. “We kept them out in the desert, behind barbed wire, but they dug tunnels. Our munitions dump was a little further away. The Arabs tried to steal our munitions. They’re real thieves,” he said in amusement. Kabuya saw prisoners of war as well. “One time a German prisoner came after me, a big SS man, he must have been two meters [6.5 feet] tall. He had got hold of a revolver. I stabbed him in the stomach with my bayonet. Our bayonets were poisoned. They were very good weapons. That SS man was the only person I ever killed.”
When the war was over both men went by truck to Palestine, but things were calmer there. The most strenuous task was the occasional stint of guard duty along the border at Haifa. The biggest danger Kitadi encountered there came from a case of food poisoning that put him in the hospital at Gaza: something to do with meat that been roasted after it was already spoiled.
The Force Publique’s participation in the Allied campaigns is virtually unknown. Its contributions, in numerical terms, were less decisive than those during World War I. The many tens of thousands of bearers from the olden days had been largely replaced by trucks. That is why today, even in Congo, the memory of those events is quickly withering away. In Kinshasa, a city of eight million, only a handful of veterans is still alive. One of them is Libert Otenga, a man who can still sing “We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line” at the top of his lungs. I was keen to talk to him, because he was one of the very few who had served in the Belgian field hospital. In the course of the conflict, that mobile medical unit of Belgian doctors and Congolese medics made an incredible exodus past the most remote fields of battle. Their wanderings ended somewhere in the jungles of Burma (present-day Myanmar); the Belgian Congo, therefore, assisted the British not only militarily and with matériel, but also medically. The Belgian field hospital became known as the tenth BCCS, the tenth Belgian Congo Casualty Clearing Station. It had two operating tents and a radio tent. In the other tents there were beds for thirty patients and stretchers for two hundred more. During the war, the unit treated seven thousand wounded men and thirty thousand who had fallen ill. Even at the peak of its activities it consisted of only twenty-three Belgians, including seven doctors, and three hundred Congolese.7 Libert Otenga was one of them. When I located him at last, he was still able to recount his odyssey effortlessly. His voice rang like an alarm bell, but he chose his words carefully.
I was a medical assistant. I joined the army in 1942. First we went to Somalia. I worked there with a Belgian surgeon. Thorax, abdomen, bones. We operated on everything. Then we left with British-Belgian troops for Madagascar. There were German prisoners of war there. The German is a special case, believe me! One of them badly needed a blood transfusion, and Dr. Valcke, one of the Belgian physicians, was willing to donate his own. But the German refused! Blood from an Allied sympathizer, he was having none of it. And from a black man, that was entirely out of the question. He wanted to preserve his honor, but we wanted to save his life. Bon, while he was asleep we gave him that blood anyway.
He still had to laugh heartily at the thought. I had never known that prisoners of war, even against their will, enjoyed the protection of the Third Geneva Convention regarding humane treatment. But Otenga went on marching straight through his recollections. “From Madagascar we went by ship to Ceylon. To Colombo. The hospital and the army were reorganized there. After that a ship brought us to India.” That must have been to the Ganges Delta (present-day Bangladesh). “From there we took another boat, an inland boat, up the Brahmaputra River. When we disembarked, we had to go a long way on foot to the Burmese border.” At the time, that area was the scene of fierce combat between Japanese and anti-Fascist forces, including the British. Japan had conquered Burma in 1942. “The border post was called Tamu. We moved into Burma and got to the Chindwin Valley. We followed that all the way to Kalewa. We set up the hospital there.” The names of all the locations were still chiseled in Otenga’s memory. He even spelled them out for me, in a military staccato. “Ka-le-wa, have you got that? We took care of people there. Soldiers and civilians. Many of them with bullet wounds. I remember a British soldier with shrapnel in his intestines. Things like that.” The fact that Congolese paramedics cared for Burmese civilians and British soldiers in the Asian jungle is a completely unknown chapter in colonial history, and one that will soon vanish altogether. “Burma was where we stayed the longest. We carried out complex operations there. We even had an ambulance plane at our disposal. Finally, we were saved by the atomic bomb! Then Japan had no choice but to surrender Burma.”8 Then, to underscore that victory, he sang again the little song about the Siegfried Line.
IT COULD NEVER HAVE OCCURRED to Colonel Paul Tibbets at the moment he pushed the button. It was August 6, 1945. His plane was called the Enola Gay. Within a few seconds the city below him would no longer be a city, but a name: Hiroshima. It would not have occurred to him that what he, as an American, was releasing over Japan in fact originated in Congo. The first American atomic bomb was made with Katangan uranium. When news of that terrible devastation finally reached the Burmese interior, Libert Otenga had no idea that he had been “saved” by an ore that came from under his own native soil. In Congo, too, the mineworkers at Shinkolobwe could never have imagined that the leaden, yellowish ore that was processed into “yellow cake” after they dug it up would lead to such destruction on the other side of the world. No one knew a thing. Operating in deepest secrecy, Edgar Sengier, then managing director of Union Minière, saw to it that Congo’s uranium reserves did not fall into the wrong hands. Shinkolobwe had the world’s largest confirmed deposit of uranium. When the Nazi threat intensified just before the war, he had had 1,250 metric tons (1,375 U.S. tons) of uranium shipped to New York, then flooded his mines. Only a tiny stock still present in Belgium ever fell into German hands. The potential military application of uranium was still unknown (it was used at the time mostly as a pigment in the ceramics industry), but in the late 1930s nuclear physicists announced that it could be used to unleash an unbridled chain reaction. Einstein considered informing Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth of the situation—he knew her and they shared a love for music—but decided instead to turn to the Belgian ambassador in New York and finally to President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. When the Manhattan Project started in 1942, the American scientists tinkering with the plans for an atomic bomb went in search of high-grade uranium. The Canadian ore they had used till then was quite feeble. To their amazement, it turned out that the Archer Daniels Midland Warehouses on the New York waterfront already contained a huge stockpile of the finest quality. The discovery led to spirited negotiations with the Belgian government in exile, which received $2.5 million in hard cash with which to finance Belgium’s reconstruction after the war. In addition, Belgium was granted access to nuclear technology. A research center was set up in the Flemish town of Mol in 1952 and a small reactor in Kinshasa, the first of its kind in Africa.9 The Americans also provided support for the construction of two large air bases in Congo; one on the coast in Kitona and the other at Kamina in Katanga. And once again: during World War II, almost no one in Congo knew about this. The strategic importance of uranium, however, was a prime reason for America’s special interest in Congo, an interest that started during the war years, became decisive in the years surrounding independence and lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1990.
Yet it was not only about uranium. For the Allies, Congo was also one of the most important raw materials depots in their fight against Germany, Italy, and Japan. After destroying Pearl Harbor, the Japanese went on in early 1942 to conquer large parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma. Allied imports from those regions were cut off completely. Congo helped provide a solution. Ores and other raw materials once again came into great demand. Copper was needed for bullet shells and bomb casings. Wolfram was incorporated in antitank weapons. Tin and zinc served in the making of bronze and brass. Even products of vegetable origin such as rubber, copal, cotton, and quinine had strategic value. Palm oil was used in Sunlight soap, but was also applied in the steel industry.
Soldiers, therefore, were not the only Congolese to contribute to the Allied push. The colony’s mineworkers, factory hands, and plantation workers also did their part. As it had during World War I, the Congolese economy was now rolling at top speed. There were some half a million payrolled workers in 1939, but their ranks swelled to eight hundred thousand, perhaps even a million, by 1945.10 After South Africa, Congo became the second most industrialized country of sub-Saharan Africa. More textile plants, soap works, sugar refineries, cement factories, breweries, and tobacco manufacturing plants had been built during the interwar years. But an industrial sector in top gear did not bring immediate prosperity. Because of the war, less and less cargo was reaching the colony. There were no textiles, no machines, no medicines. The doctors had left, the little hospitals had no supplies, fewer boats plied the rivers. The more supplies shrank, of course, the higher prices rose. And because wages were fixed, the purchasing power of the average employee fell disastrously.11 In remote Elisabethville, which was highly dependent on imports, the price of a length of textile from Léopoldville increased by more than 400 percent. Imported textiles from England or Brazil rose by as much as 700 percent.12 In the mining town of Jadotville, the price of a blanket quadrupled.13 Clearly a problem, when one realizes how chilly a Katangan night can be.
This dramatic inflation could only lead to social protest. At both the start and the end of the war, strikes and uprisings broke out. In November 1941 mineworkers in Manono, in northern Katanga, tried to take down the Belgian flag and raise a black one in its place. The men wore crowns made from palm leaves. Most of them were adherents of the Kitawala religion. They had already slaughtered all their goats and dogs, convinced as they were that a new age was about to dawn.14
One month later, large-scale protests were seen in the Katangan capital of Elisabethville. White employees of Union Minière who had organized to form a union protested against the unprecedentedly low purchasing power and their dissatisfaction jumped the gap to the black workers’ camps. There, too, miners demanded substantial wage increases. Social protest in this case did not assume the guise of a religious revival (as with Simon Kimbangu in 1921) or ethnic revolt (as with the Pende in 1931), but was expressed in the year 1941 in the form of a clear and very understandable wage claim. Yet the colonial and industrial powers-that-be reacted in traditional fashion. Trade unions for natives were still strictly forbidden. On the key day of the strike, the workers gathered on the town’s soccer pitch. It would be hard to imagine a situation more laden with symbolism: the soccer pitch, the place meant to teach the masses the virtues of discipline, now became the site of popular protest and bloody repression. Amour Maron, provincial governor of Katanga, along with the personnel manager of Union Minière, tried to hush up the strikers, but they were having none of it. Their leader was Léonard Mpoyi, an educated clerk. One of the strikers present recounted: “Maron said: ‘Go back to work! We’ve already raised your wages.’ We said no. The people began to shout and rave. Maron asked Léonard Mpoyi again: ‘So you people refuse to leave?’ Léonard Mpoyi said: ‘I refuse. We want you to give us proof, a written document that shows that the company has raised our pay.’” That document never came. But panic broke out. The soldiers of the Force Publique came into action. “Maron ordered the soldiers to shoot at the people. The soldiers obeyed, and fired without mercy.”15 At least sixty people were killed and one hundred wounded. The first fatality was Mpoyi himself.16
The violence with which that strike was crushed made a deep impression in Elisabethville. André Yav, the former boy from whom we heard earlier, wrote about it in his singular history: “It was a year deep in the war of 1940–45. Many, many people died. They died for a higher monthly wage. That day there was great sorrow in Elisabethville, because of that bwana governor.”17
The big Elisabethville strike was a milestone in the social history of Congo because it was the first, open expression of urban protest. Elisabethville was the country’s second city and the economic motor of the whole of Congo. Union Minière was the flagship of colonial industry, widely praised for its generous social provisions. But the paternalistic, finger-in-the-dike policy apparently did have its limits. The people would not put up with everything.
In Léopoldville’s working neighborhoods during the war, several legends made the rounds that were, in all their inventiveness, extremely telling when it came to attitudes toward the white authorities. First there was the legend of Mundele-Mwinda, the white man with the lantern, an imaginary European who walked the streets of Kinshasa at night, holding aloft a lantern and looking for blacks. Anyone struck by his beam of light was immediately paralyzed. Then Mundele-Mwinda would take his victim to Mundele-Ngulu, another horrific creature. This white swineherd (ngulu meanspig in Lingala) fattened up the victim until he turned into a pig. “And that pig was used to make sausages and hams, to feed the white people during the war.”18 That parents told their children such stories to keep them off the streets at night illustrates the antipathy directed toward whites by that time. It was a perfect inversion of the figure of Black Peter seen in Catholic Belgium to this day.
But adults too put stock in such legends. Under the influence of folktales about evil whites, they sought refuge in messianic religions; those stories bore witness to a deep distrust of the colonizer. In the barracks at Luluabourg in February 1944, the soldiers mutinied. The cause was bizarre: a vaccine. When military medics announced plans to inoculate the soldiers, a rumor quickly spread that this was a white man’s trick, intended to annihilate them. A great many soldiers turned against their superiors, left the barracks, and spread out over a huge area. Mutineers and civilians began plundering. Tax offices, storerooms, and a number of houses belonging to white people were attacked. The repression of the mutiny was inexorably harsh. That an unfounded rumor could give rise to such large-scale protests shows how deeply the mistrust ran.19
At other places too, social unrest returned in full force at the end of the war. In spring 1944 in the area around Masisi in Kivu province, there was a socioreligious uprising by Kitawala followers. Many of the rebels worked in the local gold mines. Three whites and hundreds of blacks were killed, and the leader of the revolt was hanged. In November 1945 five to six thousand workers and boys in Léopoldville went on strike. Railway personnel spread the news to the port city of Matadi. The dockworkers joined in. They pulled rivets out of the rails and cut the telephone lines. Fifteen hundred strikers marched through the city, armed with iron staves, hammers, and clubs with nails in them. An unknown number of them, including women and children, were killed by soldiers. A military lockdown and a curfew were imposed. During the days that followed, the prison at Matadi became so packed that some rebels died of suffocation.20 In Congo, the final days of the war did not feel like a liberation. When Brussels was freed, the Congolese danced in the streets of Léopoldville. They hoped that everything was going to be different. But the euphoria did not last for long.
IN THE CITIES the workers were asking for higher wages, but the war also made itself felt deep in the calm interior. In addition to the military mobilization, which plucked young men from their villages, there was also a far-reaching civilian mobilization. Each village had to contribute to the effort de guerre (war effort). The number of mandatory days in the service of the state rose from 60 to 120. This often placed great pressure on small-scale farming. In the equatorial forest in particular, the effort de guerre resulted in hardship. People were required to build roads through huge swamps and bridges across broad rivers. The villagers were required to gather palm nuts and copal fiber, and even to tap rubber once again. In 1939 Congo produced only 1,142 metric tons (just over 1,256 U.S. tons) of rubber, a fraction of the average harvest during the rubber boom, but by 1944 that had risen to no less than 11,337 metric tons (nearly 12,475 U.S. tons).21 A tenfold increase within five years, right in the middle of the war.
An extremely vivid account of the war’s impact on the countryside is provided by the wonderful diaries kept by Vladi Souchard, the pen name of Vladimir Drachoussoff, a young Belgian agricultural engineer of Russian extraction. His parents had fled to Belgium during the October Revolution of 1917; he himself was only a few months old at the time. At the age of twenty-two he left for the colony, in late May 1940, only a few weeks after the war broke out. Employed at first on a sugarcane plantation in Bas-Congo, he later joined the colonial civil service. As a young agronomist he traveled from village to village with the aim of boosting the war effort. His working territory lay in Équateur, close to Lake Leopold. Suddenly he, an immigrant’s son from Brussels, was responsible for the farming activities in an area of tens of thousands of square kilometers, an area without roads or industry, some parts of which were characterized only by “a vague mixture of water, mud, and trees.”22 He traveled on foot, by bicycle, or canoe and visited villages where no colonials had been for years. His maps were outdated, villages had moved, and the government shelters were mostly in a state of sore neglect. During the war, there was no new crew of colonial officials waiting on the sidelines; he could expect no relief from his duties. Drachoussoff had to order communities to start cultivating rice and peanuts and to start harvesting rubber again. This latter directive caused the population to shudder. For it was in this region, after all, that “red rubber” had left the deepest scars. Youngsters had heard the stories from their parents or grandparents. Some of their accounts required no verbal confirmation. Drachoussoff saw it with his own eyes: “In the Lopori and close to Lake Leopold, I personally saw two old blacks who had lost their right hands and who had not forgotten those days.”23 Many villagers claimed that there were no rubber vines in their area, that they had never seen them, or that the vines had been exhausted. So began la dure bataille du caoutchouc24 (the pitched battle for rubber), a struggle Drachoussoff nevertheless dared to call into question: “What right do we have to drag the Congolese into our war? None whatsoever. Yet necessity knows no law . . . and Hitler’s victory here would install a racist tyranny that would make the abuses of colonialism look good.”25
Those were ambivalent times, a fact of which Drachoussoff was well aware. He walked the line between necessity and impotence, between international politics and the jungle, between anti-Axis commitment and colonial reality. As an agronomist in a time of administrative scarcity, he juggled many tasks. And when evening came, he wrote down his experiences.
Wednesday, November 10, 1943. Mekiri.
At four A.M. I leave for Kundu on a borrowed bicycle. Two soldiers accompany me on foot. My companions travel on to Mekiri with our baggage.
I arrive in Kundu just before dawn, and bolt down a chunk of bread as I wait for it to grow light. A little before six I knock on the door of the capita [a Congolese go-between] and ask him to call all the men together to show me yesterday’s harvest. The villagers are so surprised that they all show up, both those who have latex and all the rest. I hand out a few encouraging words and three fines, and around the necks of the four worst cases I lay the rope [that expression is symbolic: what one does in fact is to tie a twenty-centimeter (about eight-inch) length of kekele—a very sturdy cord made from tree bark that causes no pain but serves to symbolize the arrest—around the person’s neck]. Then I leave triumphantly with my “convicts” to catch up with the caravan.
There was no prison in the wide surroundings. Incarceration meant that you had to travel along with the colonial official for a few days. A hike as disciplinary measure, the freedom of nature as detention.
On the road to Ngongo I find the soldiers and hand the prisoners over to them. Justice has been done, Kundu shall make its contribution to the war effort.
A ways past Ngongo I catch up with the rear guard of our caravan. This leg of the journey covers twenty kilometers [about 12.5 miles], straight across huge sandy plains where only a few Borassus palms will grow, punctuated by wispy forest along the banks of the river. We monitor the rubber production in the villages we pass: it is none too impressive, and I write out a number of tickets.
In the village of Mekiri, the men to whom my arrival was announced last night are waiting for us with latex, so that I can demonstrate how they are to make it coagulate. As I give my little presentation, I send Faigne and Pionso out to check and measure the fields. That evening, as a downpour thrashes the place where we are to spend the night, turning the roof into a sieve and drenching beds, clothing, and food, I deliver verdicts and rapidly hand out a number of convictions and acquittals.
The proceedings require a sea of paperwork. I have been appointed a magistrate with limited jurisdiction (to wit, I am allowed to rule only on economic offenses) and ambulant prison guard (to wit, I am allowed to let those I convict accompany me as I go). The maximum penalty is seven days for not carrying out works of an educational nature, for the chopping down of protected trees, and for hunting violations, and thirty days for failing to contribute to the war effort. I am, of course, also an officer of the legal constabulary, with limited jurisdiction on the basis of my position as district agronomist.
Procedure demands that I, as officer of the legal constabulary, first report an offence and then address that report myself as magistrate. While I am changing costumes, I pass the verdict, after an interrogation that is often surrealistic in the extreme.
A man appears because he has failed to plant ten ares of peanuts. He either has a verifiable and valid excuse and I send him home (some substitute clerks even demand that we then draw up a verdict of acquittal), or he comes up with something. That results in the following dialogue, which is scrupulously included in the minutes of the court.
Why didn’t you plant any peanuts?
Because I was ill.
For how long?
You had three months to prepare your field. It can’t be those two days that prevented you from doing what you had to do.
That is true, mundele. But there was something else . . . .
My father’s second wife had a baby.
Good Lord, it’s impossible to be familiar with all the customs of the thirty or forty peoples who live around the lake, but birth celebrations certainly don’t last for weeks. So then:
Bon, that will be five days in jail for you.
Some of them argufy. Others come right to the point.
Mpua na nini asalaki bilanga te? (Why didn’t you cultivate your fields?)
Mpua na koï-koï (Out of laziness) . . . .
I would dearly love to acquit him then, but if I do they will all give me the same answer tomorrow.26
Drachoussoff was part of the colonial administration but, unlike most of his contemporaries, he also felt empathy for the local point of view. These people are satisfied with the forest and the rivers, he noted; money interested them only marginally. “Because there is little monitoring in this area, most of the farmers prefer to trade eight days of mild imprisonment for 357 days of peaceful living. Can I really blame them?”27
As it had in the nineteenth century, the demand for rubber drove people farther into the jungle, despite the predators and tsetse flies. Sleeping sickness, vanquished in its earlier epidemic form, began claiming more victims. Perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population of the equatorial forest became infected. Many of them also suffered from intestinal parasites because, far from home, their only drinking water came from swamps.28
Drachoussoff’s diary is fascinating, because it allows us to hear the voice of a colonial whose worldview is being shaken. While most whites simply waited for the war to be over and then resumed their old lives, he realized that “Europe’s enfeeblement can only serve to elicit centrifugal forces.”29 Things would never be the same. Despair began creeping in. This child of Russian émigrés was much more sensitive than the average Belgian to sudden historical turnabouts. The most brilliant passage in his diary was nothing short of prophetic:
What have we come here to do, anyway?
To “civilize” in the name of a civilization that is falling apart and no longer believes in itself? To Christianize? . . . But then why are we here?
We bring peace and guard it, we fill the landscape with roads, plantations, factories, we build schools, we care for the people’s health. In exchange for that we use the riches of their soil and substrata and we let them work for pay . . . modest as it is. Service and a service in return: that is the colonial pact in its entirety.
And tomorrow? What will the black baby be like then, the baby bound tightly to its mother as she passes my barza, this young offshoot of a colonized Africa? Will he be willing to accept the power from our hands, or will he yank it away? How far away that seems today, deep in this jungle . . . but still, there are those moments when history accelerates: when my father was a child, he also believed in the eternity of the patriarchal world that surrounded him—and that was twenty-five years before 1917! Sooner or later—and I hope for Congo that it will not be too soon—a man will rise up. Will it be a chef coutumier who can deal with the modern techniques of exercising power, without falling back on the traditional ones? Will it be one of those boys who sing “Vers l’avenir” [Toward the future] at the graduation ceremony? Many colonials today don’t even think about that, even though our colonization will finally be judged less by what it has created than by what will remain of it once it has disappeared.
And he continued his lucid musings:
Let us suppose—a supposition that is consciously absurd—that Congo will be independent in 1970. But what problems would that create! In Europe, we have never known an insurmountable conflict between our social organization and our technical surroundings: both developed more or less hand in hand. But in Africa an archaic social organization collides with the supremacy of a technical civilization that causes the former to fall apart without replacing it.
Of course, Congo is moving bit by bit into the modern age . . . . But doesn’t that come at the cost of a traditional world that is obsolete but still needed and—for the moment at least—irreplaceable? In the name of what? In the name of that lovely civilization, the fruits of which we reap right now in Europe? . . . That is why it is so hard to keep a clear conscience. Simply by being ourselves, we destroy traditions that were sometimes hard but venerable, and we offer as a replacement only white trousers and dark glasses, in addition to a little knowledge and a vast longing.
But wasn’t education a form of emancipation? Didn’t colonization actually lead to a gradual growing-up, the way the colonial trinity liked to claim?
Do we have the right, even the most open-minded among us, to punish and to educate, when education is all-too-often synonymous with debasement?30
Drachoussoff’s diary is an unsung masterpiece of colonial literature: stylistically beautiful, subtle in tone, literary despite itself. For him, his war years in Congo were a lesson in humility. “Africa is a training ground for the character, but also a graveyard for illusions,” he wrote at the end of the war.31
WHEN THE THIRD REICH FELL IN 1945, André Kitadi, the wireless operator who had driven through the Sahel, was still in Palestine. What to do, so far from home? A chaplain took him and his comrades along on a tour of all the holy places. “We went to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth . . . . [S]ome of us even had ourselves rebaptized in the River Jordan.” Libert Otenga, medic at the military hospital in Burma, also took the opportunity to see a bit of the world, although he stuck to a worldlier brand of sightseeing. “After Burma we went back to India. To eat, to drink, and to dance. And to pick up girls.” He roared with laughter. “They were good.”
After every war, veterans are always a troublesome category. Anyone risking his life for a country hopes for something in return afterward. Recognition, honor, money. The toll the struggle has taken, it seems, is often felt only after it is over. Back in civilian life, veterans realize what they have endured. Injuries, mental as well as physical, have not nearly healed—if they will ever do at all. Young men have lost limbs and dreams. Memories come back, traumas smolder on in silence. They see how placidly those who stayed at home have gone on living. It’s for them that the veterans have suffered, the people who can never feel what it is they have been through. Veterans are always a fractious factor, but in a colonial army they are absolutely explosive. There they fight less for their own people than for a foreign ruler. Congo was no different. “We fought the war as a Belgian colony,” Otenga blared. And that called for generous compensation: “They should have made us Belgians afterward! That would have been fair.”32 Another person I talked to felt that they had been sent home after their glowing victories “like a mean dog the hunter sends back with nothing to chew on.”33
The veterans returned with a host of new impressions. They had become more worldly-wise and less prone to be impressed by the colonial regime in the Belgian Congo. They had taken white generals prisoner in Abyssinia! In Nigeria they had seen a different form of colonialism! André Kitadi expressed it with his characteristic forcefulness: “The British treated us very well. We were well-dressed and well-fed. In Lagos they cooked for us, for the soldiers. Tea, bread, milk, jam . . . While back in Congo we had to scavenge for our own food in the brousse! We also saw that the British already had African officers, even majors and colonels. They sent good pupils to secondary school in England. There was none of that in the Belgian Congo. Such discrimination! They kept us under their thumbs! That produced a lot of irritation and suspicion, yes, even a certain rebelliousness. After the war we said: ‘We want that too!’ We wanted a transformation, but we weren’t even allowed into their shops. We didn’t like that. We had learned English. We put on English suits. We pretended to be Americans and walked into the Portuguese restaurants, talking loudly. ‘So, what do you drink?’ we asked each other. ‘You want to eat?’”34
The whites’ authority was being challenged, albeit subtly. Something had changed in the balance of power. Many Congolese were very well aware that the colony had proved stronger than the metropolis. Belgium had been crushed; Congo had remained on its feet and achieved military triumphs. Just like in 1914–18, the Force Publique had been more successful than the Belgian national army. Occupied Belgium, via its government in London, had only survived thanks to its colony. When it came to postwar reconstruction, the shattered mother country would lean heavily on its colony as well. The Belgians, in other words, needed Congo more than Congo needed the Belgians.
In fact, the new postwar world order did nothing to prove the Congolese wrong. In Yalta, the victors chalked out the boundaries of a new world. America, as a former colony, had little sympathy for Europe’s colonial adventures. On the basis of a proletarian ideal the Soviet Union was against all forms of subjection. Colonies, once an inexhaustible source of noble daydreams and bombastic ideals, suddenly seemed to belong to another age, to be outdated. To say nothing of suspect. When fifty countries from all over the world gathered in San Francisco in 1945 to draft the United Nations Charter, the term colony was relegated to the wings of history. People spoke of nonautonomous territories. That term had something accusatory—for the countries with colonies—but also something hopeful—for the colonies themselves. Their subjugation would not go on forever. Article 73 left no doubt about that:
Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end . . . to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement.
Was this the great turnaround? Against the background of such an international climate, one might expect things to suddenly take off. For the veterans to begin shaking the tree of power, for clerks to feel empowered by such international backing, for workers to raise their voices, and for farmers to wave their pitchforks, or perhaps more aptly, their machetes.
But none of that happened.
After the tumultuous strike in Matadi, everything suddenly fell silent. A remarkable stillness descended over the colony. For ten years, from 1946 to 1956, calm reigned in Congo. There were no religious revivals like in the 1920s, no farmer’s uprisings like those in the 1930s, no mutinies like the ones in the 1940s. There were no strikes.
How could that be? Had Belgian colonialism changed its standing overnight? Somehow, yes—at least in people’s minds. In his farewell speech in 1946, governor general Ryckmans said: “The days of colonialism are over,” by which he meant primarily the old system of overt exploitation. “Like integrity in diplomacy, altruism is the best policy in colonization.”35 The colony should at least reap the benefits of its own riches. This was not yet about the road to independence, but about “developmental colonialism.”36
This new spirit was also reflected in the overblown slogans that became popular. After the war, the colonizer could hardly stop talking about Congo as “Belgium’s tenth province.” It was an attempt to replace the condescension of old with a more egalitarian way of dealing with Congo. The colony was no longer some remote outpost, but had become an integral part of the mother country. But it was also a ridiculous notion: how could a gigantic country that a twist of fate had made the colony of a dwarf state become one of its provinces? Congo was a thousand times the size of the provinces of Limburg, Brabant, or Hainaut!
Another attempt at rapprochement was seen in the concept of a “Belgian-Congolese Community.” The idea came from Léon Pétillon, governor general from 1952, and was intended to obliviate the old dominer pour server, which by then sounded all-too paternalistic. Hand in hand, the Belgians and the Congolese would work together to build a new, modern world. Just as the British had transformed their empire into the Commonwealth, and the French had redefined their overseas territories as the Union Française, Belgium too would from now on strive for equality with this Belgian-Congolese Community.
Some politicians paid explicit lip service to the newfangled discourse about “native welfare.” The Permanent Commission for the Protection of Natives went further than others: “The future of the race and the happiness of our Congolese population groups are of an importance paramount to any other objective,” it said.37 Belgian opinion leaders from across the political spectrum chimed in in agreement. “Colonization must first of all entail a project of civilization on behalf of the peoples,” one Catholic said.38 “Whether we like it or not, our fate in Congo depends on that of the blacks,” a socialist had already realized.39 “Everything for, everything by the natives,” was the way one European Liberal politico summed it up.40 This unanimity may seem surprising, in light of the far-reaching socioeconomic compartmentalization in postwar Belgium. But many people had realized that the Congolese population had suffered greatly.
The Belgians set about assertively drawing up a new chapter in their colonization, optimistically and with greater pride than before. They would pilot the colony into the modern age, edify the population and, at the same time surpass themselves. Beginning in 1949 an ambitious ten-year-plan was to provide the colony with a modern infrastructure in all areas.
It was the age of highways, nylon stockings, and potted plants. The new world order prompted a certain belief in progress, yea, perhaps even a certain good cheer. Walloons and Flemings left for “the Congo” in great numbers. This was the relève, the fresh blood for which men like Drachoussoff had waited so anxiously during the long years of the war. By the end of that war there were only 36,080 white people in Congo; by 1952 their numbers had risen to 69,204, more than ever before.41 Colonial officials and highly trained industrial workers, all of them men, began bringing their wives to Congo in increasing numbers. To the great relief of the church the era of the menagère was drawing to a close, although this left behind a few thousand children of mixed parentage, who often had no place in either world. The mother was almost always Congolese, the European father usually a Belgian in government service, but Greek and Portuguese men sired children by native women as well. Those Greeks and Portuguese were usually self-employed shopkeepers or restaurateurs. If the father acknowledged his natural son or daughter, the child would receive a European upbringing and passport. If not (and that was in nine cases out of ten), the child would remain with its mother in the neighborhood or village, where it was usually regarded as an outsider: too white to be black, too black to be white.42 After the war, however, the number of Eurafrican births fell sharply. The newcomers from Belgium brought their families with them or had children in the colonies: blonde, fair-skinned, and freckled children in short pants, who chased lizards on the lawn before their villa and were more familiar with mangoes than with apples.
But for the Congolese population the changes were quite few. Essential reforms aimed at more rights (with regard to political participation and socioeconomic position) were very slow in coming.43 In daily life there were no indications of any new pact between blacks and whites. The colonial trinity still championed the gradual education of the broad masses. Technically speaking, an elite could very well have been cultivated within a short period, but the authorities feared that such an elite would become alienated from the rank and file. All the people, the colonizer felt, should first ascend to an initial level of “civilization” before the next stage began. Teaching the masses to read and write seemed more prudent than cultivating a thin top layer that would then receive political rights.44Besides, had the bulk of the Congolese themselves ever asked to take part in government? Well, there you had it!
The fact that they did not ask for political power, however, did not mean that they were happy as ever. The native’s political apathy was more an indicator of a lack of education than of any surplus of satisfaction.
In addition, daily life bore no signs whatsoever of rapprochement between Belgians and Congolese. Instead, the gap was widening. The fresh batch of colonial arrivals snuggled down in new and comfortable villas and lived in greater luxury than ever before. Their residential neighborhoods reminded one more of Knokke or Spa back in Belgium than of Central Africa. At the end of the working day they spent their time with their families; on the weekend their friends came by to barbecue or play bridge. Beer was kept in a refrigerator. (Electric fridges, no less: the age of pioneers was truly over!) An increasing number of them had cars, which they washed on Sunday mornings with the garden hose. The Europeans’ Congo began resembling the middle-class, suburban California of the 1950s. Convivial enough, without a doubt, but an expatriate community that talked more about Africans than with them. Interest in the local culture waned and the working knowledge of one or more native languages disappeared. Vladimir Drachoussoff viewed this with regret:
Officials who, outside their professional duties, show any interest in the native are few and far between. Family life, more comfortable furnishings, the possibility of (and consequently the desire for) a life almost as one would live it in Europe have edged out the old broussard, with all his weaknesses and faults, who went from post to post, talked to the village elders and finally understood them and let himself be understood.45
The Belgian-Congolese community became a fantasy, gradually overtaken and outstripped by an increasingly closed Belgian colonial community. The pith helmet was discarded, the tall tales by a glass of whisky beneath the Coleman lantern disappeared. The Congo became petit-bourgeois. Many of the women never went to the cité, the only blacks they knew were the boy and the chauffeur. White children often grew up in an atmosphere of latent racism. By 1951 things had reached such a point that the Permanent Commission for the Protection of Natives drew up a desideratum, calling for “schooling and games that will teach white children respect for individual humans, as that concerns the native family and black children.”46 That a venerable institution like the commission had to turn its attention to matters such as games of tag and hide-and-seek said a great deal.
Rare were the Europeans who succeeded in summoning up deep empathy for the Congolese perspective. And no one took that empathy as far as the Flemish Franciscan Placide Tempels. He was active in Katanga, in ways that included an attempt to fathom the profound disgruntlement of the mineworkers there. As early as 1944 he turned his attention to the uprisings in the colony, and wrote a courageous, but much-maligned essay entitled “La philosphie de la rébellion”:
This is the apogee of native disillusionment. He [the native] has allied himself with us in order to become one of us; but instead of being regarded as a son of the family, he is seen as nothing but a wage slave. Now he knows himself to be rejected for good, turned away as a son, classified as non-incorporable.47
No one had looked at it that way before. His standard work, Bantu Philosophy, appeared in 1945. The English and French translations made him world famous; Jean-Paul Sartre read his book with interest. His attempt to understand African cultures from the inside out introduced the concept of “force” as central principle. His insights called for a totally different brand of colonialism: “We thought we had to educate big children, which would have been relatively easy. But suddenly it becomes clear to us that we are dealing with fully developed human beings, with self-aware sages pervaded with an all-inclusive philosophy of their own.”48 His razor-sharp analysis caused Tempels to run into trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities. He was recalled to Flanders from 1946 to 1949. It was a sort of relegation (forced exile), this time not of a Kimbanguist to a village in the jungle, but of a visionary Catholic to a monastery in Sint-Truiden.
Things did indeed remain calm in Congo between 1946 and 1956, but it was a ghastly calm, a relative repose that spoke more of old fears than of new hope. Above the gardens of the colonial villas where on Sunday afternoons the sound of tinkling glassware arose, dark clouds were gathering. But no one saw it, not even the freckled son on the lawn, holding a lizard prisoner beneath a glass jar. It was the quiet before the storm.
WHERE WOULD THE TEMPEST OF RESENTMENT FIRST BURST LOOSE? The countryside had reason enough for protest. The rural population still lived under miserable conditions. The fields lay neglected. The prodigious war effort had posed an obstacle to subsistence farming. Malnutrition was widespread. Hunting had ground to a halt. Colonial officials had to encourage the people to resume the gathering of caterpillars, termites, and grubs, a traditional source of proteins.49 At those spots where cattle were raised, after all, the beef was systematically reserved for the mines. The ten-year plan included an extensive program for getting native agriculture back on track. The goal was to help local communities with the use of modern agricultural techniques and means of production (the so-called paysannats indigènes), but those efforts met with little success. The countryside was and remained dirt poor. Rural impoverishment in Congo appeared not after independence, but during the colonial period itself. Birthrates were extremely low. Although rampant population growth is a problem in Africa today, dwindling natality was a cause for permanent concern in the Belgian Congo during the first half of the twentieth century.
So much misery might have led to social protest, but it did not. Or rather: that protest assumed a different form. People did not rise up, they ran away. The postwar years in Congo were characterized by the massive abandonment of the countryside. On an unparalleled scale, people began moving to the urban agglomerations. Kinshasa, with its 50,000 inhabitants in 1940, mushroomed into a city of 300,000 by 1955.50 Young people had already begun migrating voluntarily to the cities in the period between the wars, but now they left en masse. After the war, 70 percent of the countryside had a population density of fewer than four inhabitants per square kilometer (about 6.5 inhabitants per square mile).51
Who was supposed to take the initiative for protest? Those with dreams went and pursued them elsewhere. Those who remained behind were often exhausted and apathetic. The rural population was aging rapidly; by 1947 an estimated 40 percent was over fifty.52 An enormous percentage, in light of the relatively low life expectancy. Those elderly people were uneducated and bowed passively to colonial authority. There were no agricultural cooperatives or unions, and no social structures that could watch over the interests of people in the countryside. The only form of social organization they knew was tribal, but that was in a state of advanced decay almost everywhere. The chief no longer had any moral authority, but was now an arriviste who did the colonizer’s bidding.
So what about the cities? Was sedition running hot there? Did the confluence of dreams result in a fist clenched in defiance? Not right away. For many, the move to the city truly did provide new opportunities. Not that the cities flowed with milk and honey, but in any case they were better than where they came from. And some of those new urbanites had the devil’s own good fortune.
LONGIN NGWADI WAS EIGHTY when I found him in Kikwit. I had been searching for him for months, hoping he was still alive. When I finally met him he was washing himself in the brown water of the Kwilu River. His torso was skinny and sunken, his washcloth a completely ragged piece of green cloth. It was not simply threadbare, it was nothing but thread. Was this the man I’d been looking for? His face seemed longer than what I remembered from the historic photo. Only when he walked could you see that he had once been a fanatical soccer player. He had the soccer player’s typical bowed legs and waddling walk.
He lived in a clay house. A huge eucalyptus tree grew beside the path to his door. Chickens pecked at the red earth, a goat kid wandered about, bleating at nothing in particular. Laundry was hanging in the sun to dry. As the wind picked up, the colorful fabric began to billow. Trouser legs snapped. Sleeves flapped. It looked like a crowd cheering along the sidelines, or along a boulevard where royalty or a celebrity was passing by. I looked at the sky. It just might rain. Longin invited me into his house, had me sit down in a plastic chair. It was very dark inside. I moved closer to the door, so that I would have enough light to write by. A few of his grandchildren stood in the doorway, staring at me with big eyes. When he chased them away, they scattered in every direction, reeling with laughter. The first drops began to fall.
“Rain! For the first time in two weeks!” He beamed. “This is a blessing. The good Lord blesses this conversation.”
He was born in Luzuna, a village along the Kwilu, in 1928, and was baptized by the Jesuits at the Catholic mission post at Djuma. His father was a carpenter. “Just like Joseph!” He built chairs, doors, and school desks for the Belgian missionaries. His mother tilled the soil and raised manioc. They still ate well in those days. Rice, manioc, and fish, but also crayfish, grubs, mushrooms, and zucchini. What a difference with today! “Now we only eat once a day. It’s always rice and beans. Or manioc and beans. We have meat only rarely. And we never eat fish anymore.”
The sky clouded over. In the distance we could hear the rumble of thunder. It became so dark that I could barely read my own notes.
Longin went on talking imperturbably. His parents were already Catholics by the time he was born, he said. He was the second of three children. It was in Djuma that he first saw a car, a pickup that belonged to the nuns. “The white man is intelligent, I told myself. I congratulated the priest.” That was also where he went to school. The missionaries ran the primary schools throughout the colony, greatly assisted by local teachers. Secondary education was limited either to vocational training or—for an infinitely smaller group—to seminaries. The classic form of secondary school, aimed at providing a broader education, did not exist yet. The first such schools were set up only in 1938. But for a long time, in other parts of Congo, one simply became either a cabinetmaker or a seminarian. Longin followed a technical curriculum. “I was supposed to become a mechanic, to work on the Lever concessions, but I didn’t feel like being dirty all the time.” At the age of sixteen he left for Kikwit. He badly wanted to become a priest. “But the padre said: You’re already too old for that. So I quit school and went back to my village.”
It’s hard for us to imagine just how frustrating that rejection must have been. Going to seminary was not only the sole possibility for continuing one’s studies, but priesthood was also the highest social position a Congolese could occupy. Then you were monsieur l’Abbé.
Longin showed me an old color photograph of himself. In it he was wearing a purple bishop’s robe and sitting on a throne, looking earnestly at the camera. “That cassock is worn out, but I used to wear it every Sunday around town. Whenever I had a vision, I told people about it. Back then everyone in Kikwit called me Monseigneur.” He has always had something with religion. Christianity, of course, his Christianity.
Just as Simon Kimbangu had begun to preach once the Protestants no longer wanted him as catechist, so Longin Ngwadi adopted the cassock after the Catholics refused to consider him for the priesthood.
The first drops began to fall, fat, heavy raindrops that made dents in the earth the size of marbles. Then the storm broke loose. The rain gushed over Kikwit and whipped at the thin roofs of huts and houses. Thunder and lightning crashed down in tandem. The sky burst open. In every tropical storm there comes a moment when the thunder no longer growls but shrieks. That moment had now arrived.
Longin threw his hands in the air and prayed to the Almighty, as a thin tendril of saliva rolled down his chin: “Seigneur, you are the one who has sent us Papa David. We ask of you: please, could you make a little less noise, so that we can continue our conversation? Merci et amen!”
Then, as though nothing had happened, he went on: “In 1945 I went to Kinshasa. I was seventeen. My father gave me money for the boat, my mother gave me food to take along. From Luzuna I walked to Djuma. There I took the packet boat. The boat trip took four or five days. First over the Kwilu, then the Kasai, and finally over the fleuve [Congo River] itself.”
Longin was one of many tens of thousands of young men who left for the capital. Most of them moved in with family or friends who were already living there, but he had no contacts. “I didn’t know anyone when I got to Kinshasa, no one at all. But a night watchman called to me to come onto the patch of ground he was guarding. It was someone from my own region. I was allowed to sleep on the ground, out in the open.”
It didn’t seem like a particularly propitious start to his life in the city.
“Soon after that I got my first job, with Papa Dimitrios. He was a Greek Jew and he owned a department store. He had me do some arithmetic to test me, then said I could stay. My job was to sell trousers and shirts, women’s textiles, soap, sugar, all kinds of things. He found a room for me, close to the Jardin Botanique. After three months I already had a mattress, sheets, blankets, two chairs, pots and pans, and cutlery. Dimitrios gave me a lot of presents. I worked for him for three years. After that I started working at the Économat du Peuple, a big shop with seven floorwalkers. I only stayed there for a year. They threw me out because I sold some sausage that was already spoiled.”
It was nothing compared to the office of the priesthood, but he was pleased with his new life in Léopoldville. His dubious success as sausage salesman was more than compensated for by a very different talent. “I played for Daring for four years. Under Tata Raphaël.” Daring was one of the city’s most successful soccer clubs, set up by Father Raphaël de la Kéthulle—a name familiar to us by now—in 1936. The club still exists today under the name Daring Club Motema Pembe, and is the premier soccer club in Congo. “I played on the same team for a long time with Bonga Bonga, the first Congolese to play in the Belgian soccer competition. He played for Charleroi, for Standard. He was our Pele! Our matches in Kinshasa were always held at the Kintambo velodrome. I was number 9, I was a striker. Tata Raphaël would stand on the sidelines and watch me play, smoking his pipe and shaking his head. He couldn’t believe his eyes. I was like a snake!”
To underscore his words, he hopped up and began—on his octogenarian legs—to dribble around his darkened living room. Beneath the low ceiling he performed a whole series of fakes. He still had it. Left, right, a backheel kick, a spin. He illustrated it all in slow motion, while outside the thunder roared on incessantly. Meanwhile, I could see the rainwater running down his living-room walls. It was not trickling, it was running. Longin paid no attention to it. “My nickname was Élastique, the rubber band. That’s what everyone called me back then. Élastique the forward, number 9 for Daring.”
But that was not the end of his remarkable life story. In the early 1950s the city had another surprise in store for him. “Pétillon was appointed governor general.” That was in 1952. “He asked five people to come to the Maison des Blancs. That was where all the secrets of the Congo were kept. The white people gathered there to govern Congo. It was right beside the Memling Hotel. Only calm, intelligent and serious people came there. It was the cercle des européens. It was my job to wait on them. ‘S’il vous plait.’ ‘Merci.’ ‘S’il y a quelque chose, vous me le dites.’ [Please. Thank you. If there’s anything you want, let me know.] The hours were long, but I got fifty Congolese francs when I was finished. Of the five Congolese who were called in, I was numero uno. I was the most polite, the most well-mannered. So Pétillon said that I could become his boy maison [house servant]. I went with him to the governor’s mansion.”
The carpenter’s son who was not allowed to become a priest, the salesman of household textiles and moldy liverwurst, the lightning forward for Daring, now became manservant to the next-to-last governor general of the Belgian Congo. “I worked for him for four years. He called me mon fils, my son.” Léopoldville was truly a city of opportunity.53
LONGIN NGWADI’S STORY WAS EXCEPTIONAL, of course, but many newcomers experienced a new sense of freedom in the city. That certainly applied to many women. After her husband died, Thérèse from Kasai moved to Léopoldville. An uncle took her in and helped her to set up a little business. On the street market in Kinshasa she sold manioc beer, and later fruit juice she made herself from ripe bananas. After one year she had her children come to the city, a few years later she remarried, this time to a worker she had come to know, someone of her own tribe who had ended up in the city as well.54 In the cité, a “free woman” was no longer a prostitute, the category once referred to in official documents as “the healthy women of native extraction who theoretically live alone,” but simply a person trying to get by on her own.
Or Sister Apolline. She was Longin’s age. I met her at the Franciscan convent in Kinshasa. She came from a mixed family in the interior—her father was Congolese, her mother Tanzanian; they had met during World War I while her father was with the Force Publique, fighting in German East Africa. When she turned twelve, her parents found a suitable partner for her to marry. But she had different plans. She wanted to enter the convent, she felt freer there. The life of a nun took her to the big city. “I worked in Lubumbashi for twenty-nine years. I was the headmistress of a primary school there. And many years later I became the first black member of the religious provincial council. I’ve always lived in the city.”55
Or Victorine Ndjoli. She was the first Congolese woman to get her driver’s license. “I went to home economics school at the Franciscan sisters. Sewing on buttons, needlework. Later, at the foyer social [community center], I learned to make baby clothes and hats. Back then the white people were looking for pretty girls for their advertisements. I was a photo model for a brand of bicycle, for sherry, for milk. I liked that, but I wanted something more. I ran away in order to take driving lessons. My father didn’t want me to at first, but afterward he was proud of me. I had my license within a week. It was 1955, I was twenty. I took lessons in a Dodge, but I’ve never had my own car. The men in the family were against it.”56
Victorine also took part in the first beauty contests in Léopoldville, organized by the dance-school owner Maître Taureau (Master Steer). It would be hard to imagine a name more macho than that. I asked him about it as we sat in front of his house in Yolo, a working-class neighborhood where every passerby knew him. “No, my real name is François Ngombe. Ngombe is Lingala for bull. And maître because I am the master of Life without a Master!” He roared with laughter. “At my dance school I taught the cha-cha, bolero, rumba, and charanga, but also swing and rock ’n’ roll. As a sideline, I organized Miss Charm contests in the neighborhoods. The Greek and Portuguese merchants gave away free textiles. The girls wore them as pagnes [skirts], which worked as a kind of advertizing. There was a contest, and one of the girls was chosen.”57
Kinshasa became a city of fashion, elegance, and coquetry. Young women wore long, colorful pagnes, a custom introduced by the nuns at the missions. By way of Europe, batik textiles arrived in Central Africa. The girls wore their hair short, but from around the age of ten they let it grow. A dozen African hairdos arose at this time, some of them taking up to three hours to create.58 Women played a key role in the creation of a new urban culture. They controlled small trade, they determined which clothing, music and dances were fashionable and they gave form to a new, modern African lifestyle.59
A number of women were able to break through to prestigious positions. In 1949 Pauline Lisanga was hired as announcer for Radio Congo Belge. The station had begun with broadcasts for the African population. Lisanga became Africa’s first black female radio announcer.60 Few Congolese owned a radio, but passersby and neighborhood residents would gather around loudspeakers set up at many spots in the city. There they heard Lisanga’s voice. They listened to news programs, edifying sketches and religious programs, but also to traditional Congolese music and light Western music. There were even slots for contemporary Congolese music.
Léopoldville in those days was teeming with bands that provided entertainment for weddings, funerals, and parties. Their lively rhythms, virtuoso guitar arrangements, falsetto vocals, ingenious song lines, and light-hearted lyrics made for irresistible dance music. This was the rock ’n’ roll of Central Africa. In Congo, the major dance venues were in the hands of Greek immigrants. In Kinshasa one had (and still has) the Akropolis; in Kisangani there was the Bar Olympia. A number of Greek entrepreneurs also began opening recording studios. There, the wondrous dance music of a number of Congolese orchestras was preserved for posterity. Radio resulted in the rise of new popular heroes. Kabaesele’s African Jazz and Franco’s OK Jazz became the most popular bands of the 1950s.
Yet urban life had more to offer than beauty contests, manioc beer and dance recordings. At the shipyards of Léopoldville, in the chemical and metallurgical plants of Katanga, and at trading firms in the urban centers, a new generation of Congolese men like Longin Ngwadi were finding their first jobs. There they made acquaintance with a demanding modern economy. There were no strikes, but here too reigned the deceptive silence before the storm. Only a few years later, when the fever of independence broke out in full force, many people dreamed of never having to work again after power had changed hands. But for the time being things remained calm, ominously calm. After all, how could any rancor have risen to the surface? Trade unions provided no solution; until 1946, in fact, they were forbidden for black workers. White civil servants had set up their first associations as early as 1920, but they admitted no Congolese members. A trade federation exclusively for trained personnel, the STICs, the Syndicats des Travailleurs Indigènes Spécialisés, was established after the war, but effectively excluded 90 percent of all Congolese workers. Later came the APIC, the Association du Personnel Indigène de la Colonie, which was a much more militant organization. But with the stipulation that such organizations be supervised by white advisers, the colonial administration was able to keep almost every trade union organization on a short leash.61Always having a civil official or padre looking over one’s potentially rebellious shoulder effectively quashed all autonomy. Trade union activities were expected to be constructive and calm. At best, the colonizer saw the associations as a useful éducation sociale for the worker.62 A sort of soccer, in other words, but then indoors: you learned to hold meetings, to draw up an agenda and take minutes, to discuss a budget . . . . The trade union was considered a form of training, not a legitimate forum for opposition and protest. When Belgian trade union organizations—both Catholic and socialist—tried to gain a foothold in the colony, their attempt was doomed to failure. The Congolese worker felt no affinity with them. It felt like something was being imposed on them from above, something white. Of the almost 1.2 million Congolese on payrolls in 1955, only 6,160 belonged to a union, less than one-half of one percent.63
The government did, however, stimulate the larger companies to establish works councils in which Congolese could have their say. These were easier to monitor than autonomous trade unions. The provincial councils also took on their first black members, and from 1951 the colonial administrative council, an informal advisory body without real powers, numbered eight Africans—most of whom came from the countryside and did not belong to the new urban middle class. These were tentative attempts to hear the grievances and complaints of colonial subjects, but they also attested to the opinion that there was still a world of time in which to arrive at more substantial measures.64 Everything was still going swimmingly. Or so they thought.
HOW COULD ANYONE HAVE SUSPECTED that a revolution was brewing? The rural population remained docile, the city dwellers seemed satisfied enough. In fact, there was even a real caste of évolués on the rise who wanted to live in the most European fashion possible, who were wild about anything Belgian, and who loudly voiced their praise of the merits of colonialism. Today the term applied to these Westernized Africans seems rather problematic, but it was very much a title they chose for themselves.65 And theseévolués, the Belgian colonial was sure, posed no threat whatsoever. Given, there was at times something ludicrous about it, about the whole business of tidy suits and mannered French. But these were the true social climbers, the ones reaping the bulk of the fruits of that noble task of spreading civilization. There could hardly be more loyal subjects.
But it was precisely from within the circles of the évolués that the bomb would finally go off. Most of them had been born in the cities between the wars. They had only secondhand knowledge of village life. They attended the mission schools, went to work for European businesses, respected the colonial government, and therefore looked up to their white rulers as the only social role model they had ever known. Many of them went to great lengths to be taken seriously. They studied in the public libraries, read the newspapers, listened to the radio, went to the movies and to the theater, and read books; it was the white man’s intelligence, even more than his prosperity, that they envied. The latter was nothing but an expression of the former.
A lively culture of clubs and associations arose. Still under colonial supervision, these organizations were nonetheless of great historical importance: in the alumni associations, academic clubs, and tribal organizations, after all, lay the seed of the political awakening to come.66 The former pupils of Tata Raphaël’s school came together in the Adapes (Association des Anciens Eléves des Pères de Scheut), later an important breeding ground for the first generation of Congolese politicians. In the cercles des évolueés(évoluées’ clubs) they gathered to discuss books and organize debates; these were a sort of informal night school, and they shot up like mushrooms. In 1950 there were three hundred of them all over Congo. The tribal associations in the cities were now more than simply emergency coffers; they became cultural organizations that would soon develop political ambitions as well. In Elisabethville, tensions grew between the Baluba from Katanga and the Baluba from Kasai: the latter group, to the locals’ great irritation, had come down to work in the mines in huge numbers. New clubs were set up as a result. In Léopoldville, the Bakongo felt threatened by the growing influx of Bangala, tribespeople from Équateur who were active in the military and in commerce. Lingala was replacing Kikongo, the original language of the area around the capital, and so the Abako, the Alliance des Bakongo, was set up; a purely cultural association that promoted the language of the Kongo people. Its founder, once again, was a young man rejected for the priesthood.
An évolué was a man (never a woman, except as partner) who had enjoyed a certain level of education, had a fixed income, displayed great seriousness about his profession, was monogamous, and lived in European fashion. As the children of two of them explained to me once, the évolué also owned a Raleigh bicycle, preferably with gears. “That was the black man’s Mercedes in those days.” In his home he had a Coleman lantern. He had a record player, which he used to listen to Edith Piaf. Wendo Kolosoyi records were all right as well, because that was calm music. “But definitely not any music that might give rise to lewd dancing. My parents went dancing on Sundays, my father always wore a derby.” The évolué sent his wife to prenatal care at the health center. Their baby was weighed. At home they abided by the nutritional advice given by the white nuns. They rejected traditional medicine and ancestor worship, but the gap between male and female was sizeable. The former was educated and worked for an employer, the latter uneducated and jobless. Only two or three women in all of Stanleyville around that time were able to carry on a conversation in rudimentary French.67 One of the évolué children told me: “I often heard my father tell my mother: ‘You, you’re a real Negress, you know! The white people don’t live like that!’”68
The number of évolués was never very large (fewer than six thousand in 1946, and a little under twelve thousand by 1954), but their articulateness tipped the scales in their favor. Tragically enough, what they desired was closer contact with the Europeans, at the very moment when the Europeans were withdrawing more and more to their villas, swimming pools, and tennis tournaments. Yes, in the Belgian Congo there were black truck drivers and telegraph operators, but in cafes and restaurants the color bar was more pronounced than ever. If a white journalist in Léopoldville dared to take a black colleague along to a European bar, conversation would stop. Trains and riverboats may have been run by black engineers and captains, but the passenger compartments were strictly divided into black and white. If a black man jumped into a swimming pool, the whites would get out. Corporal punishment with the chicotte was still applied to all Africans, even those who could distinguish the Latin dative case from the genitive and read De Gaulle’s speeches. The writer Paul Lomami Tshibamba worked for La Voix du Congolais, a government-monitored magazine for évolués. For the second issue, published in 1945, he wrote a controversial but by all means moderate piece entitled “Quel sera notre place dans le monde de demain?” (What Will Be Our Place in Tomorrow’s World?). By his own account, its publication resulted for him in “countless legal sittings, accompanied by endless lashes.”69 The chicotte cracked while, elsewhere in the city, synchronous but far more lazy, the tennis balls thunked against the backboards. Meanwhile, white colonials went to the horse races and organized bicycle races. Festive kermis competitions, with amateur cyclists riding cheerfully under banners advertizing Martini and Rossi vermouth.
The painful yearning felt by the évolué was never clearer to me than during those few seconds of historical footage in Heimweh nach den Tropen, a gripping documentary by Luc Leysen. It is 1951 and the whites are lined up to judge a contest in Léopoldville. Yet these are not poodles or poultry being judged, but families. Before an exclusively white audience, Congolese families are parading past the jury. The father in short pants, his wife beside him, then the children neatly lined up according to age. The youngest child carries a sign with the contestants’ number. The audience applauds politely. Then they walk offstage gravely . . . . So much despair in so few seconds.70
The évolués desired a special legal status that would do justice to their unique place in society. That was understandable. They had, after all, become “social mulattoes,” people who dangled between two cultures.71 The évolués of a small town like Luluabourg expressed it most grippingly:
We ask the Government to kindly recognize that native society has evolved powerfully in the last fifteen years. Beside the native masses who are rated less important or who are uneducated, a new social class has been formed which constitutes a sort of native middle class.
The members of this native intellectual elite do everything possible to advance themselves and to live in a respectable fashion, as respectable Europeans do. These évolués have realized that they have responsibilities and duties. But they are convinced that they deserve, if not a special legal status, then in any case special protection from the Government against measures or treatments applied to the ignorant and backward masses . . . . It is painful to be received as a savage, when one is full of good will.72
It is also painful to think that anyone who writes so eloquently could still be subject to flogging with a strip of hippopotamus hide. The subservient, almost servile tone bespeaks a great longing. The évolué did not wish to tear down the wall between black and white, but to be lifted over it. He did not fight against the color bar. He did not demand rights for “the Congolese people,” or for his tribe, but only for the circles to which he, after great effort, had gained access. Was that egotistical? Definitely. Was there something denigrating about it? Yes. But in the final analysis, in their desire for assimilation, they had even adopted the perspective from which most of Europeans regarded the natives.
The Belgian colonial authorities hesitated for a long time. After all, they had never set out to cultivate an uprooted elite, had they? Everything in good time, that was the motto. It was not until 1938 that a hesitant start was made with general secondary schools, and not until 1954 (only six years before independence, but no one knew that yet) that the first university, Lovanium, was set up, an auxiliary branch of the Catholic University of Louvain. During its first year, the new university had thirty-three students and seven professors. You could study natural sciences, social and administrative sciences, education, and agronomy. A law school was started only in 1958.73 No big hurry, in other words. Was it then really necessary to recognize a privileged caste?
In 1948 the Belgian administration found a provisional solution: the évolué could apply for a “certificate of civil merit.” Anyone without a criminal record and who had never been deported, who had sworn off polygamy and sorcery, and who could read, write, and do arithmetic was eligible. Those who held such a certificate could no longer be administered corporal punishment and would, in the case of a trial, be tried before a European judge. They had access to separate wards in hospitals and were allowed to walk through the white neighborhoods after 6 P.M.74 This made a great impression on the average Congolese. In Boma, Camille Mananga, a man who was thirteen when the certificate of merit was introduced, told me: “That was reserved for the truly prominent. They were allowed to go shopping and drink along with the whites. That was a very great distinction. I was still much too young. The sky was more within my reach than a certificate like that!”75 But for people who had been working their way up the ladder for years, it represented fairly minimal privileges that stood in no proportion to their efforts. Structural wage inequality still existed. As a former évolué, Victor Masunda, another inhabitant of Boma, could still get wound up about that: “Of course I didn’t apply for that card. It really didn’t mean any higher wages. A lot of people groveled, but I refused to lower myself. Applying for the certificate of merit was degrading. Was I supposed to become their little brother? No. I could get hold of my red wine and whisky on my own.”76
It was for this reason that, in 1952, the carte d’immatriculation (registration card) was introduced. This new document gave the évolué the same rights in public life and in the eyes of the law as the European population. The most important advantage was that the évolué could now send his children to European schools, an exceptional social promotion that also guaranteed a decent education. But the skepticism among large parts of the colonial elite was so great that extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean. Did the family eat together at the table, or did the mother sit in the kitchen with her offspring while the man dined with his visitor, in the old style? Only very few applicants lived up to the these criteria. The result, therefore, was that years of palaver were invested in drafting a legal status from which almost no one profited. In 1958, within a population of almost fourteen million, only 1,557 “civil merits” were handed out and only 217 “registration cards.”77 That led to frustration. For sooner or later yearning turns to distaste, yes, even to hostility.
TYPE IN A SEARCH for “Jamais Kolonga” on YouTube and within seconds you will hear one of the great classics of Congolese rumba. It could have come from the Buena Vista Social Club, but it was composed by African Jazz, the most popular band in Congo in the 1950s. That legendary orchestra was led by Joseph Kabasele, nicknamed “le Grand Kalle.” The song itself was written by his gifted guitarist, Tino Baroza. It became one of African Jazz’s biggest hits. “Oyé, oyé, oyé,” the refrain went, “hold me tight. Jamais Kolonga, hold me tight. Let me go, and I might fall.” The part about holding tight was open to multiple interpretations.
I climb out of the car in a narrow, dusty alleyway in Lingala. Could this be it? In colonial times, Lingwala was the neighborhood of the évolués. All the old people I spoke to knew Jamais Kolonga. Of course! But hadn’t he passed away? Hadn’t the local press run an alarming article? “Le vieux Jamais Kolonga laminé par la maladie!” (Old Jamais Kolonga flattened by illness!) was the headline. They had read that the man “who as bon vivant, with his wisecracks and pranks, served as the embodiment of the vitality of Kinshasa in the 1960s” was now critically ill.
But, after a series of dead ends and a fortune spent on call minutes, I had finally come up with a street and a number. The yard I walked into was surrounded by a crumbling wall and contained a patch of corn, withered and dry as dust. From a cinderblock house a man appeared, wearing short pants, walking on crutches.
“Are you Jamais Kolonga?”
“The one and only!”
One had informants who had seen a lot but had little to say, and one had informants who had little to say but talked a lot anyway. Kolonga belonged to neither category. He had seen everything and he was a fantastic storyteller. He didn’t think so himself: “I’ve just had a hip operation. It’s not going too well. It hurts a lot, even with all the medicines I have to take.” He pulled up his pants leg to show me an impressive scar.
“Is there something I can do? Do you need anything?”
“Wine! If you’ve got some money, I can send one of my grandchildren out for wine.”
“Wine? In your condition? Are you sure?”
I spent three whole afternoons talking to that little, sharp-witted man, sometimes in his living room, at other times in the shadow of his house. He was excellent company, with a remarkable sense of humor, an unsinkable joie de vivre and a spectacular memory. One time I went to visit him in a little hospital where he had been admitted to convalesce for a few days, and where he flirted with the nurses nonstop. His hip was getting better every day. But now, I asked him, what was the story with that white woman?
“That was in 1954. I was eighteen and had just started working for the Otraco.”
“The Office des Transports au Congo?
“Exactly. My father worked there too. First they put me on the docks here in Kinshasa, but until I turned twenty-one, the wages were paid to my father’s account. That was not exactly ideal. I couldn’t even buy my own liquor. That’s why I asked to be transferred to the interior.” While everyone was moving to the city, he ran away from it. “I had to go to Port Francqui, which is what they call Ilebo now. It’s close to Kasai. When you travel from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, that’s where you transfer from the boat to the train. In those days I even put up Simon Kimbangu’s children; they were on their way to visit their father in the prison! Bon, so I worked there as clerk. And because of my father, I was the only black man allowed in the white people’s shops. I drank Portuguese wine and whisky. That’s right, even back then.”
While he was talking, one of his granddaughters had gone to the local shop and come back with a cheap carton of wine, which she set down in front of us. Don Pedro. I stuck to my cola.
One day Kabasele was passing through with his orchestra. But his train ran off the tracks, and they missed the boat. They were stuck in Port Francqui for fifteen days! I knew that my Flemish boss’s daughter was getting married soon, and arranged for Kabasele to play at the wedding. No sooner said than done. The party was gearing up. That evening I wore a navy-blue suit with a red tie. There were only three évolués there. I had to arrange special permits for the musicians, otherwise they wouldn’t have been allowed into the white neighborhood after dark. I stood at the bar and saw a Portuguese lady. She danced very well. You have to realize that in 1954 a black man wasn’t allowed to touch a white woman. We couldn’t even talk to them! The only white women we saw were the Catholic nuns. The boys were the only ones who came in contact with married European women. But okay, I’d taken a good look at her while she danced and I asked her husband if I could cut in. Just like that! It was an impulse, an obsession. But her husband nodded. So I walked up to her and I asked her to dance. Then I danced with her, for a whole song. Afterward the whites all clapped, even the provincial governor! Later, Kabasele wrote a song about it: “Jamais Kolonga.”
He poured himself a little more wine. Once an évolué, always an évolué.
“So tell me about your father.”
“He was born on January 1, 1900, in Bas-Congo.”
“Oh really? Is that an arbitrary date, something the missionaries came up with?”
“No, that was really his date of birth. That same day someone was mauled by a lion, a black man. When my father was baptized, the white people still remembered that. There were a lot of lions and buffalo, even elephants, back then.”
Now there are no big animals anymore. In terms of wildlife, Bas-Congo is empty. But what a rapid evolution! Only half a century before Jamais Kolonga danced at a European wedding, there were still lions mauling people in Bas-Congo. And missionaries, out after living prey of their own.
When [my father] was twelve or thirteen, Reverend Father Cuvelier came to the village. He said to my father: “I want you to shine my shoes. Where is your father?” And to my grandfather he said: “Can you give me your son?” “All right,” my grandfather said, “I’ll let him go with you, as long as he comes back to see me sometimes.” My grandfather himself was a Catholic, you see? When he got married in the church, he sent away two of his three wives. He kept the children himself, of course. Anyway, my father went along to the mission post and was baptized on December 13, 1913. After that they registered him with the Redemptorist school in Matadi, and six years later he went to the new secondary school in Boma. So he was, ipso facto, one of the first students to graduate there.
It was the first time in all my journeys that I had heard a Congolese use the term ipso facto.
Around 1927 or 1928 [my father] was picked out by an official from Otraco. They needed intelligent people. Until he reached retirement age in 1958, my father worked for Otraco, always as an office clerk. When the company moved its headquarters from Thysville to Léopoldville, he moved here. My father became an evolué. He managed la cité Otraco, the housing district for the native personnel. He was in charge of masons, carpenters, the men who worked with reinforced concrete. He visited the homes of the Otraco workers and every Saturday he gave a prize for the neatest, prettiest house. My father drank wine, he was one of the first Congolese who was allowed to do that. On holidays he gave speeches for the governor general, for Ryckmans, Pétillon, or Cornelis, he knew them all. In 1928 he even gave a speech for King Albert, when he came here! So of course they gave him a certificate of civil merit and later a registration card. Back then there were only forty-seven immatriculés in all of Congo!
That had made a great impression. Even old Nkasi remembered him. “Joseph Lema, he was completely mundele.” Kolonga’s father was appointed to the Otraco works council and later to the provincial council. He belonged to the first group of Congolese with even a slight say in administrative matters. Kolonga rummaged around in a grubby brown envelope and pulled out a black-and-white photo that had been eaten away by moisture and termites. The picture was crumbling in his hands.
“Look, this is my father. And this is my godfather, Papa Antoine.” A man in uniform, heavily decorated. “He was a World War I veteran, and a good friend of my father’s.” On the back of the photograph I saw his father’s handwriting. Extremely graceful and regular, brimming with self-confidence.
I was born in 1935, in Kinshasa. I spoke French with my father, Kikongo with my mother, and everywhere else it was Lingala. My parents came from the same village. My mother was married to an évolué, but she went back to the village each year for six weeks. It must have been there that she was bitten. She died of sleeping sickness in 1948. By then I was attending school at Saint-Pierre’s, the primary school run by the Reverend Father Raphaël de la Kéthulle. During the recess I was allowed to arrange the books in the school library. And when there was a big soccer match, I was allowed to fetch the ball from his office and lay it on the center spot. The band played martial music and I marched out to the center of the pitch, even though I was the littlest pupil. De la Kéthulle taught me to be brave.
He tried to demonstrate how he had done that, but his sore hip kept him from it.
“I wanted to become a priest. I studied Latin and Greek for two years at the preparatory seminary at Kibula, outside Kinshasa. That was with the Redemptorists. But then they kicked me out.”
“Because I didn’t like manioc bread. I really couldn’t eat it. They thought I was putting on a show. Jacques Ceulemans was the name of the man who expelled me. I still remember his name. He showed no mercy. I really couldn’t stand that stuff. It was the greatest disappointment of my early years, but after independence—by that time I’d become a spokesman—I turned around and threw him out. That was during the soldiers’ mutiny.”
Desire, frustration, revenge: a familiar psychological process. For Kolonga, too, the priesthood had been an ardent pipe dream, a dream from which he was rudely awakened.
“I finally finished school in Kinshasa, at Saint-Anne’s, De la Kéthulle’s secondary school. We were all there at the same time. Thomas Kanza, Cardoso, Boboliko, Adoula, Ileo. Bolikango too, but he was a bit older.” Each and every one of the men he mentioned had occupied key positions after independence. Jean Bolikango went to Brussels to negotiate the terms of independence. Cyrille Adoula, Joseph Ileo, and André Boboliko all served as prime minister at some point, Kanza was the first ambassador to the United Nations, Mario Cardoso was minister of education. “Our school was run by the Scheut fathers. The other school in Kinshasa was a Jesuit collège. [Justin] Bomboko, [Cléophas] Kamitatu, Albert Ndele, they all went there, among others.” More resounding names from the history of Congo. The first two were later to be ministers of foreign affairs, the latter became director of the Congolese Central Bank.
What a setting, what a portrait of an era . . . This was the jeunesse dorée of Congo. Their schools had served to prepare a young urban elite fairly bursting with ambition. No generation before or after them had ever received such a sterling education. A certain inferiority complex with regard to the whites still remained, but with them the fear felt by an earlier generation reversed itself in moments of daring, certainly for someone like Kolonga. He still purred with pleasure when he thought about Monsieur Maurice.
I went to work for Otraco in ’52. Monsieur Moritz was one of the bosses. There was an elevator for whites and stairs for the blacks, even for the white-collar workers. I always took the elevator anyway, because I had to go the fourth floor. One day I found myself in the elevator with the notorious Mr. Moritz. And I had wine on my breath, too. Because my father was an évolué . . . Bon. Moritz hit me and we got into a fight. It all ended up at the Otraco security office. I was really the company troublemaker, let me tell you.78
POSTWAR CONGO was making a complete turnabout, and the évolués were the clearest proof of that. The atmosphere was one of anticipation. The high point was, without a doubt, the famous tour King Baudouin made in May and June of 1955. For the first time, a Belgian ruler visited not only the colony’s strongholds of power and its hunting preserves, but also took time to wave to the people. It was a roaring success, a euphoric experience without parallel. Young people climbed in trees to wave back to the king, women wore pagnes bearing the Baudouin’s likeness, children loudly sang the Belgian national anthem.79 The king and his retinue crisscrossed the country like a traveling circus and were welcomed everywhere with song and dance. In Stanleyville he was carried on a litter by Bakumu tribesmen. He was followed by the women of Elisabethville, who called out: “Our king is so young and so handsome! May God preserve him!”(Our king, they called him; it was the first time that had ever happened.) In Kinshasa someone came up with the idea of having him driven around by Victorine Ndjoli, the photo model with the driver’s license, but the plan fell through. Mwana kitoko was what they called him, pretty boy, for he was quite young and still single. Everyone tried to catch a glimpse of him. To look him in the eye or touch him was believed to bring good luck. Children in the provinces who had never worn shoes now received their first pair, specially for that one day. “It made it hard to walk,” one of them said, “but we certainly laughed a lot.”80 Today, in the homes of elderly évolués, one still sees their wedding picture hung beside a state portrait of Baudouin.
One of the places the king visited along the way was Lingwala, the district where the évolués lived. “He wanted to see them with his own eyes, the houses that had been built with state funding,” Kolonga said. “And so he came to look at my father’s house, which was here on this plot of land.” He pointed out the window with his crutch at the spot where the corn now stood withering on the stalk. “The house is gone now, but back then Madame Detiège, Otraco’s social assistant, came by to check the easy chairs and decorate the house. The walls got a new coat of paint and they put flowers on the tables. King Baudouin came here with the governor general. They talked to my father for at least ten or fifteen minutes.”
It was hard to believe that only a few years later that same father would be visited daily in that same house by a man who would stoke the desire for independence like no other. That man was Joseph Kasavubu. A few years after that he would become the first president of an independent Congo.
A GREAT DEAL HAD CHANGED. After World War I there had been those who longed for a return to the time before the whites arrived. But after World War II, more and more people began longing to live like the whites themselves. There was as yet no fever of independence, but the world war had served as a catalyst of major proportions. The war had displayed the mother country’s vulnerability and had resulted in a new world order in which colonialism was anything but self-evident. The latent tension this generated was never expressed more clearly than by Antoine-Roger Bolamba, journalist, poet, and évolué, in 1955. He was the greatest Congolese poet writing in French during the colonial period.
Before the meat of the struggle
I will wait
wait for the red hour of the kickoff
Above my head already whistles the arrow that carries further, much further,
the dizzying fire of victory81